Growing up, I always imagined myself a starving artist in a loft in New York City, a likely response to spending my formative years in rural Ohio. "I'm never going to work in an office," I spat at 12. And yet, at 21, my first job was in an office. An office-y office. With fluorescent lighting and backhanded office compliments and that weird, nubby, gray/blue/brown carpeting that seems to have been in every office-y office since the beginning of time. Some things about office life are great — the consistency, the sense of community, the corporate perks — and some things are not. The bad coffee sucks, the sitting for hours and hours takes a toll, and the potentially toxic social climate can be infectious. There may be some put-downs you didn't realize you were giving your coworkers, because let's be honest, dudes, it can be tough to resist that kind of passive aggressive environment.
Remaining above the fray in the midst of "office culture" sometimes feels impossible. Put a bunch of adults together for hours and hours at a time, day after day, in close quarters, and yeah, sh*t is going to go down. You're going to get annoyed with people. People are going to get annoyed with you. But by being more mindful of how you interact with others, you can potentially eliminate at least a little of the toxicity that's thrown around the office.
You know how there are all those articles about cute things to brighten your cubicle? This list is how to brighten other peoples' cubicles. And in doing so, your own, because who doesn't like bringing a little brightness into somebody else's day? Apart from Voldemort, I mean. You may not realize you're giving these "compliments" that are really more like insults to your coworkers, but awareness is half the battle, right?
1. "You're really professional for your age!"
Being young and in an office setting is such a minefield, especially in today's simultaneously Millennial-hating and youth-worshiping social climate. As someone who started her professional career at 21, I cannot tell you how many times my validity as a co-worker was thrown into question simply by someone mentioning my age. Falling into that same trap once the next round of recent grads come onto the scene can be hard — but resist. You're not doing anyone any favors, yourself included, if you enforce the idea that a young person can't be successful or professional or smart or accomplished.
2. "Wow, you really seemed to know what you were talking about in that meeting."
Instead: "Those points you brought up are really interesting and I'd love to discuss them further." Or: "You killed it with those facts." Or: "Good job." Don't act surprised when your co-worker is knowledgeable about something — it's condescending.
3. "That presentation was actually pretty good."
UGH. The "actually" trick, immediately disqualifying anything complimentary in your sentence. Don't act surprised when people do a good job! Don't act like you weren't expecting excellence! Let them live! Let them enjoy the moment!
4. "It's so cute how excited you are about this new project."
Eliminate "cute" from your professional vocabulary, especially when dealing with female peers. It is demeaning, and it diminishes accomplishments. Let people be excited, dude, and don't bring them down just because you're lacking in enthusiasm. Get on their level or GTFO.
5. "I don't know where you find the time to bring in all these baked goods!"
In the classic film Empire Records, Corey, played by Liv Tyler, notes that there are 24 hours in every day after her co-workers are shocked she had time to bake cupcakes for Rex Manning Day. Granted, we later learn she's on, uh, speed (perhaps this isn't the best reference, but I never pass up an opportunity to bring up Empire Records), but the general sentiment remains. Acting like someone has millions of hours to waste, in comparison to you, the busiest human in the world, is insulting. Say thank you. Ask about the recipe. Eat the cupcake. Or don't. That's up to you.
6. "Your outfit looks so good today — you should always dress like that"
I got this comment the one time I straightened my hair, and in turn I haven't rocked that hairstyle for three-plus years in protest (plus, I like my hair curly and my opinion is the only one that matters when it comes to my looks). Acknowledging a change in someone's appearance is fine, but implying that it's a huge improvement is going to immediately make them think, "So did you think I looked bad before or...?"